The Sari Doesn't Need Saving

Why globalization is good for this gorgeous Indian outfit

Globalization produces different anxieties in different people. And for the high-priests of Indian culture it is the sari. Famous novelist, boy genius, and former Indian cabinet minister Shashi Tharoor triggered a major attack of national handwringing a few years ago when he dressed down female reporters for not dressing up in saris for his press conference—and then penning a sappy plea to “save the sari from a sorry fate.” Other writers have been worried even longer than Tharoor.

In the wake of all the hyperventilating, many Indian fashionistas, eager to assert their social consciences, adopted the sari as their pet cause. And now, barely a few years later, they are declaring victory in their struggle. No less than The Washington Post recently announced that, thanks to the efforts of India’s top designers, the sari has made a comeback. If only the Bengal Tigers were so responsive!

To most Indian women it would be news that the sari was ever gone. The garment has survived for over 4,000 years without any benevolent, top-down intervention—and I suspect it will continue to do so. That’s because saris have always enjoyed a special relationship with Indian women and Indian women with them. And globalization will strengthen, not sunder, this relationship, possibly even winning new paramours for the outfit along the way.

Concerns that globalization will wipe out the sari are not entirely baseless of course. After all, many a traditional dress has been swept away by modernity’s gales of creative destruction. In India itself, men, especially in cities, began trading their lungis, dhotis, and mundus—varieties of sarongs—for trousers and leisure or safari suits (mercifully out of fashion now!) even before liberalization. So thoroughly Westernized is male attire in Indian cities that at a family sangeet—a pre-wedding music and dance get together—in New Delhi some years ago, my husband was the only one sporting a traditional kurta-pajama—and he’s a Jew from New York. Likewise, in Scotland only guys utterly secure in their masculinity don the kilt anymore—and then only on special occasions. But the garment whose fate makes Indians clutch their brocade scarfs in terror is the kimono. This gorgeous, elegant, elaborate outfit that both Japanese men and women wore as a matter of routine till the early 20th century is now more prevalent in Japanese museums than in Japanese closets.

However, except for the fact that both the sari and the kimono inhabit countries east of the prime meridian, they have little in common.

For starters, the Indian government never embarked on an official program to mandate Western clothes in the workplace as the Japanese Emperor Meiji did in the early 1900s, triggering a decline in traditional outfits. It is out of the question that the Indian government would ever have attempted such a stunt—let alone pulled it off—without instigating a major national revolt, especially by Indian women whose sense of femininity is inseparable from this six yards of rectangular cloth.

Part of the Indian woman’s attachment to the sari no doubt stems from her cultural conditioning. Indian girls grow up wearing a mix of Indian garments (choli/lehnga, salwar/kamiz) and Western clothes (frocks, skirts, long dresses, and jeans) clothes—not saris. Saris are meant only for grown women who have fully come into their own. When a girl first wears one—typically at her school’s graduation or farewell party, the equivalent of prom night—it marks a rite of passage. The sari and all its resplendent accessories—glass bangles, chunky hand-crafted silver or gold jewelry, the bindi on the forehead—are their first full encounter with their femininity and, like a first love, it leaves an indelible impression.

But an Indian woman’s acculturation in the sari begins much before she actually wears one. Saris are an essential part of a bride’s trousseau that mothers sometimes start planning from the day a daughter is born. My mother had barely left the maternity ward when she decided that she would give me at least 21 silk saris when I got married. And, over the years, I witnessed her painstakingly assemble my collection with pieces from all over the country: rich, double-shaded benaresis; sumptuous tanchoies woven with strands of real gold; South Indian kanchiwarams whose bright magentas and fuchsias with contrasting borders are sadly out of fashion now; diaphanous, delicate chanderis; simple, weightless French chiffons in soothing pastels; Bengali kanthas whose elaborate embroidery depicts stories from ancient Hindu epics; and gorgeous, sumptuous tassars—my personal favorite—whose shine seems to come from an inner glow like the brides they often adorn.

By the time Indian girls exit puberty, they are acquainted with these regional designs and fabrics, having acquired an education during countless family shopping expeditions. I remember as a little girl scouring the bazaars of New Delhi with an entourage of cousins and aunts, all on a collective quest to find the perfect sari for some family function.

We’d start with the posh stores of Connaught Place such as Glamour where gray-haired, well-scrubbed salesmen in starched kurtas gingerly extricated sari after sari from white tissue wrappings, methodically unfurling them, one by one, on the gleaming glass counter till we’d thoroughly discussed and dissected every element of each: the border that runs across the bottom and drapes the feet; the middle that’s folded into pleats that cascade waist-down; and the pallu—the last two yards of the sari—that typically goes across the chest and over the left shoulder, covering the exposed mid-riff.

Next stop usually would be the crowded and squalid Karol Bagh market. The casual sensuality of their sales staff was so different from the sedate, prudish sophistication of the Connaught Place stores that we might as well have been on a different planet. Lissome sales boys in tight shirts and pants—sporting a long pinky nail that made us snicker—would spring into action the moment we entered the store. They’d pull out bundles and bundles of silks tied with cotton rope or nalla. At the slightest hint that we liked one, they’d leap up and wrap the sari around themselves, deftly making the pleats and tucking them into their belt—and then, in a final flourish, swinging the pallu across their shoulder to show us the full “get up.” Sometimes we’d walk away without buying even one after they had performed this modeling routine scores of times, leaving them forlorn to stash away yards and yards of fabric.

No doubt Japanese girls go through their own acculturation in the kimono. But there is something about the sari that gives it a unique staying power.

The sari, in a way, is the antithesis of the kimono. The kimono is a structured, multi-layered garment with many parts, all of which are meticulously tailored in advance before they are finally assembled on the woman with ties and sashes. It is like a stylized robe that encases the figure, compressing its curves and contours, imparting a regal but prim uniformity that is indifferent to the frame beneath.

The sari, by contrast, is formless and fluid. It moulds itself to the shape of the woman, highlighting—rather than obscuring—her special configuration. If a kimono is like a cloak that swaddles a woman, a sari is like a veil that hides or flaunts what a woman chooses. The sari’s formlessness opens up endless possibilities. Japanese women too are experimenting with different lengths and sleeve styles to give the kimono a more contemporary look. But there is a way in which the sari can completely transform itself without losing its integrity that is at the root of its enduring appeal to Indian women.

The fear that saris won’t survive globalization stems from an insecurity that somehow things traditional are incompatible with a modern lifestyle. Modernity’s fast pace breeds a rough-and-ready culture, a casualness of attire that allows people to move quickly to grab opportunities, get things done, deliver results. It is not a coincidence that jeans are the de facto national outfit of America! A sari, by contrast, is a time-consuming, fussy affair, difficult to drape (I still can’t do it without help) and even more difficult to maintain. It is cumbersome and constricts mobility, one reason Indian feminists regard is as a patriarchal invention designed to confine women to the home—although in Pakistan, where President Zia-ul-Haq declared a sari unIslamic in the 1970s, it has become a symbol of women’s liberation, a subversive pleasure that women indulge in to taunt authorities. Be that as it may, sari worry-warts have some empirical grounds for their pessimism in that as more Indian women have entered the workplace, the sari has lost its predominance in everyday wear.

But that hardly means that the sari is headed for extinction.

Globalization is certainly giving Indian women options outside the sari, forcing it to share wardrobe space with cocktail dresses, evening gowns, and corporate pant-suits. But it is also giving them more options within the sari. The stodgy-old men and the Indian guidos are still there in Connaught Place and Karol Bagh respectively selling traditional benaresis and tanchois. But these markets are now supplemented with trendy new malls such as Square One in the outskirts of New Delhi whose sales staff consists of well-turned out girls with trim figures. More to the point, Square One saris reflect a cross-pollination of ideas, a blending of traditional and Western elements, that wouldn’t be possible without globalization. The biggest transformation is the cocktailization of the blouses worn beneath the sari that are becoming skimpier and bolder—driving traditionalists crazy. But the saris themselves are experimenting with all kinds of new fabrics and designs, sometimes with absolutely stunning results. I am still fantasizing about a black crepe sari I saw some years ago studded with Swarovski crystals and kundan stones—kind of like rough-cut diamonds used in Indian jewelry—with a matching backless blouse, all for the modest sum of $10,000, which, incidentally, Indian woman can more easily afford thanks to the greater disposable income that globalization has put in their bejeweled purses!

I canvassed a group of Indian friends—engineers, Bollywood script-writers, entrepreneurs, executives, doctors, dancers—inside and outside India, all of whom have a healthy interest in fashion, and asked them how they felt when they wore a sari. The words they used were: feminine, beautiful, sexy, glamorous, chic, classy, different, comfortable, rooted, confident, and, above all, in keeping with our modern times, powerful. I am sure if I had posed the same question to women in my mother’s generation, they would have said: traditional, beautiful, honorable, appropriate, respectable, chaste/pure, domestic, spiritual.

In short, the sari has seamlessly transformed itself, trading the values of tradition for those of modernity. Some garments are specific, sociologically contingent. A sari is eternal because ever evolving. And as it evolves, far from fading in India, its appeal will likely spread, gaining it new converts outside India. I am waiting for Angelina Jolie to appear in a black lycra sari with a leather bustier in the next Tomb Raider!

All that designers need to do to “save” the sari then is to figure out what women want from their saris and give it to them. If they are looking for a crusade, the Bengal Tigers really could use some help.

Shikha Dalmia, a native of India, is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a Forbes columnist. This column originally appeared at Forbes. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

Shikha Dalmia is Senior Analyst





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